Hypernormalization

The English documentarian Adam Curtis recently appeared on an episode of Chapo Trap House to discuss his latest documentary, Hypernormalization. The sprawling interview explores the film’s many themes and influences, and I highly recommend listening to the episode if you can. Hypernormalization is a hypnotic film filled with historical juxtapositions of  Cold War politics, Soviet collapse, the internet revolution, the rise of Jihadi terrorism, and the post-9/11 world order. Curtis argues that the collapse of the Soviet Union brought an end to an era of politics that wanted to change the world. What came after is an era of managed perceptions and risk avoidance. A world in which we are lied to by those with power, we know they lie, they know we know, and little changes. The powerful continue to pull off brazen crimes, and ordinary people are so far removed from power that even amidst universal outrage, nothing happens.

The film’s title is borrowed from a concept developed by Berkeley professor Alexei Yurchak in his 2006 book Everything was Forever, Until it was No More. Yurchak’s argument is historically contingent and more nuanced than one might suspect from Curtis’s appropriation. He argues that the near absolute control of language under Stalin allowed the dictator to act as a sort of grand arbiter over discourse, weighing the veracity of canonical texts and mediating national debates personally. Upon his death, no other figure could fill this role. Indeed, Khrushchev’s denunciations of the cult of personality around Stalin three years after his death ensured that no one would  ever command the same mediating influence over Soviet discourse. Fear of deviating from acceptable ideological positions combined with a lack of centralized control over language led to a performative shift in the 1960s and 70s. Without any means of arbitrating facts and opinions, state discourse became imitative and self-referential.  Citizens knew the official language of the state was essentially performative and superficial at this point, which created room for new and competing interpretations of the world in everyday life. So the collapse of the Soviet Union was both sudden and unpredictable to citizens whose lives had become unmoored from the language of their leaders. But once it happened, collapse was totally understandable given the depth of lies and distortions to which people had grown so accustomed.

This is the comparison Curtis introduces in his film, but whereas Yurchak points to a specific, exceptional historical period in which a national discourse was stripped of meaning after a breakdown of total control, our current discursive disintegration in the United States is harder to pinpoint. This is not a question of whether or not discursive traditions have eroded—they most certainly have. Much of our national political discourse seems so detached from the diverse experiences of people that the hypernormalization comparisons feels frighteningly appropriate. Accuracy accounts for little in  a society bifurcated by factionalism and apathy where voters are increasingly disillusioned with the undemocratic nature of wealth and politics.  Although he paints with a broad brush, Curtis’s general thesis identifies a fundamental threat to the future of politics: people are used to being lied to,  seeing politics respond ineffectually to the problems of their lives, and  accepting this as an routine feature of modern life.

To explain the origins of hypernormalization in the United States, Curtis points to America’s favorite war criminal, Henry Kissinger. Kissinger’s betrayal of President Hafez al-Assad of Syria and the death of pan-Arabism after the Israeli-Egyptian peace accord left the Palestinian issue unresolved and Syria isolated from its former Arab allies who leaned increasingly toward the West. Assad’s response in promoting a wave of suicide bombings and terror campaigns against American targets—including most famously the bombing of American marines in Beirut—presented the American foreign policy establishment with an intractable problem.

Unable or unwilling to respond to the complexity of the Palestinian problem, the Reagan administration turned instead to an international fiction. They invented a supervillain in the form of Muammar Qaddafi, whom the United States blamed for numerous acts of international terror despite evidence pointing towards Syria. Unlike Syria, Libya was relatively isolated from the Arab-Israeli conflict and a minor figure in world politics. For his part, Qaddafi wholeheartedly embraced the role as a means of reinvigorating his stalled movement and lackluster governance of Libya in the years since he seized power. Rather than tackle the messy complexities of Middle East politics, including a reckoning with the blowback of our own policies, America chose—and has consistently chosen—obfuscating moral frameworks to explain our imperial actions in the world. Curtis does not explain how these distilled moral dramas differed from the equally obfuscated narratives of Cold War conflict, but one can only do so much in a few hours.

I’m not sure I’m as convinced that the fictive international politics of our current world order are as important to the discursive meltdown underway in the United States. More important are the revolutionary changes in how we access and consume information.  The least developed theme in Hypernormalization—the rise of the corporate internet and information capitalism—offers the most compelling explanation for how something akin to the near total management of Soviet perceptions is underway through a completely different process in the West. Unlike the promises made by John Barlow and other early advocates of a free and open internet, the information revolution never escaped the influence of concentrated corporate power. Instead of unlocking human expression and creativity, the internet has created a silo culture of opposing and outraged partisan bubbles that exist in echo chambers, on platforms designed by Silicon Valley cartels to do just that.